Goldstuck on Gadgets

LG makes early running at Mobile World

February 23rd, 2016
LG is the surprise front-runner in new technology roll-outs at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
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Barcelona has come to be associated with great football, great food and, for a few days a year, great technology. When the Mobile World Congress comes round every February, the world watches to see where the technology road map will take their smartphones, apps and digital identities.

For the last few years, the technology has been almost as predictable as the food and football, with no surprises as the usual football teams, restaurants and technology brands – think FC Barcelona, the Moments two-Michelin-star restaurant and Samsung Galaxy devices – has continued to dominate the popular imagination.

It therefore comes as shock when a follower – say Espanyol’s football team or a local tapas bar – takes any honours. Or, say, a technology brand like LG.

That’s exactly what happened when the big guns of mobile technology began rolling out their latest products in a series of spectacular launches across the city.

The first brands out of the gate were LG and Huawei, but it was the former that seemed likely to cross the finish line first as it broke with numerous conventions – its own and those of others – in the design of the new LG G5 smartphone.  It has dispensed with the curved screen that tended to be a curiosity rather than a benefit in the G4, and has reduced screen size from the 5.5” phablet format to a more petite 5.3”display. That means it has a deliciously thin form factor: a mere 7.7mm, and dramatically down from the 9.8mm predecessor.

The battery is only slightly smaller, at 2800 mAh compared to 3000 in the G4, One rear camera boasts the same 16Megapixels and 2160p resolution, but a second 8MP camera on the back opens numerous creative options. RAM goes up from 3GB to 4GB, while a more powerful Snapdragon processor – the 820 instead of the 808 – drives the phone.

The standout element is not one specific feature, though, but the overall design: it is a modular phone that allows components to be removed, replaced and added. While it is a “unibody” full-metal device, it allows the bottom to slide out to access expansion card slot and replace the battery – a feature that seems to have become anathema to Apple and Samsung. An optional camera grip, the LG Cam Plus, with battery and hardware controls, can slide in here to turn the phone into a full digital SLR camera.

An add-on co-designed with Bang & Olufsen, the HiFi Plus DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) module, provides high-resolution audio and puts the device in a sound class of its own.

The clue to the potential of the device lies in the repetition of that Plus brand: aside from the Cam Plus and HiFi Plus, we can expect to see many more plus-one modules not only from LG, but also from other developers.

The phone would have been enough to confirm LG’s ascent to new innovation heights, but it has clearly been hard at work across various technology categories. It also unveiled the surround-view LG 360 Cam and a the LG 360 VR, a pair of lightweight virtual reality goggles that link to the phone. The devices are part of a new family of devices called LG Friends, which includes the remote-controlled Rolling Bot robot. It seems almost frivolous alongside the rest of the technology, but has serious applications in home monitoring.

The latest offerings from Samsung, revealed a few hours later, were almost tame in comparison. The Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge appear to be almost rthe same devices as last year’s S6 and S6 edge, except more powerful and energy efficient.

Samsung has also backtracked in response to user demands, restoring the SD card slot that allows for expanded storage. It was inexplicably removed from the previous editions, despite the fact that the need is greater than ever before as users generate more high-resolutuon content than ever before. Apple remains the only major hold-out in this regard, but the return of SD to Samsung may just force Apple’s hand as well, the way Samsung did with the success of larger displays.

Samsung’s new phones offer one more feature that put them on the same level as LG: an always-on display that allows notifications, time, date and other inmformation to be viewed even while the phone is in sleep mode.  According to LG, this mode uses less than 1% of battery capacity.

The main shift in the design of the Samsung S7 and S7 edge is in restoring the dust-proof and water-proof feature offered in the S5. An IP 68 rating means it compares well with the market leaders in this particular category, Sony’s Xperia devices.

The latter has also led in camera technology in recent years, but was unable to set the market alight with its Xperia Z-series phones. This week, it unveiled the first “X: series devices, with an Xperia X, Xperia X Performance and Xperia XA. Their main differentiator builds on Sony’s strengths, with what it calls a “next-generation camera”. 

A feature called Predictive Hybrid Autofocus lets users choose a subject and then predicts its motion, so theyu can capture action without blurring.

Sony also builds on a less-well known strength, namely superior batter management. It takes this a step further with Adaptive Charging technology, which promises two full days of usage.

Like LG, it launched the phone with a family of products carrying a unified naming convention, with the likes of the Xperia Ear wireless ear-piece powered by voice technology, the Xperia Eye wearable wide-angle lens camera that can be attached to clothing, and the Xperia Projector for projection on any clear surface of an interface that responds to touch, voice and gestures as if it is on the smartphone screen.

Samsung, for its part, also launched a new virtual reality (VR) product, with the Gear 360 spherical camera, which can capture VR content for viewing on the Gear VR headset.

Some will debate whether LG or Samsung is playing catch-up here, but the real story is the continued innovation by all brands across all areas of mobile technology.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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